There are some artists who follow trends, while others are trendsetters. Trendsetter describes Robbie Basho perfectly. His love and appreciation of various cultures, especially Indian culture, resulted in a series of albums of genre-defying music. Robbie’s raison d’être seemed to be broaden the minds of music lovers. He wanted them to open their ears to musical possibilities. That’s what he did in 1962, when he first heard Ravi Shankar.

Before hearing Ravi Shankar, Robbie had already embraced Asian culture. This began back in 1959, when the then nineteen year old Daniel Robinson Jr, bought his first guitar. Soon, Robbie immersed himself in Asian culture. So much so, that he changed his name to Robbie Basho, in honour of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. This was the beginning of the transformation of Daniel Robinson Jr, from student to Robbie Basho, groundbreaking musician who released a string of albums between 1965 and 1985. This included 1972s The Voice Of An Eagle, which was recently rereleased on Vanguard Masters, a subsidiary of Ace Records. It demonstrates why Robbie Basho is remembered as a groundbreaking musician. Robbie’s story began in Baltimore in 1940.

Tragically, Daniel Robinson Jr, was orphaned at an early age. He was then adopted by the Robinson family and attended school in Baltimore. At high school, he sang in the middle and high school choirs. Daniel also played the euphonium in his high school band. So, for some people, it wasn’t a surprise that Daniel Robinson Jr, would go on to enjoy a career as a musician. His career began at the University of Maryland.

Daniel headed of to the University of Maryland in 1958. It was there that he met John Fahey, Ed Denson and Max Ochs. They were all aspiring guitarists. Their interest rubbed off on Daniel. However, he didn’t have a guitar. Not until he met a sailor who’d just returned from Mexico.

Daniel was working his way through college by working in a club. One night, he met a sailor who’d just returned from Mexico. The sailer had an antique Mexican 12-string guitar. He offered to sell it to Daniel. The only problem was that he wanted  $200 for it. Robbie however, bought the guitar for $200. However, buying the guitar was just the start of a new chapter in Daniel’s life.

With his new guitar, Daniel set about pushing the guitar to his limits. Daniel also immersed himself in Asian culture. So much so, that he changed his name to Robbie Basho, in honour of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. This was the just the first change in Robbie’s life and career.

Having started off playing country blues, with John Fahey, Ed Denson and Max Ochs, that didn’t seem to satisfy Robbie. So he dipped into bluegrass, classical, oriental and free jazz. Then came the moment that changed Daniel’s life. He heard Ravi Shankar.

Sitting in the dark, listening to Ravi Shankar, Daniel found music he could relate to. This was fortuitous. Many artists who played folk music found they weren’t able to express themselves. Having listening to Ravi, Daniel realised he could. There were a whole host of tunings he hadn’t yet discovered. Soon, Daniel was studying with Ali Akbar Khan, who was a renowned sarod virtuoso. Ali helped popularise Indian music within the West. So, did Robbie Basho.

Robbie pioneered and popularised a whole host of open and exotic tunings. He also developed his coded Doctrine of Mood and Colour For 6 and 12-String Guitar. This was all part of Robbie efforts to transform the steel-string acoustic guitar into a concert instrument. That took the best part of ten years. By then, Robbie’s recording career was well underway.

After a spell spent travelling, Robbie found himself in Berkeley. There was a thriving folk scene in Berkeley. This played its part in the revival of Takoma Records, who Robbie would release Robbie’s solo album.

This was 1965s The Seal Of The Blue Lotus. Robbie’s sophomore album was 1966s The Grail and The Lotus. These two albums were innovative and much more adventurous than much of the folk music being released back then. Robbie was determined to push musical boundaries. He succeeded, releasing The Falconer’s Arm I, The Falconer’s Arm II and Basho Sings in 1967. That year, Robbie contributed The Thousand Incarnations Of The Rose to the compilation Contemporary Guitar – Spring ’67. 1967, proved to be the most fruitful year of Robbie’s career.

It wasn’t until a new decade dawned that Robbie Basho released another album. This was 1970s Venus In Cancer, which was released on Blue Thumb Records. Robbie’s last album for  Takoma Records was released in 1971. That was Song Of The Stallion. After that, Robbie signed to another prestigious label, Vanguard Records, where he released two albums.

The first of the two albums Robbie released on Vanguard Records, was The Voice Of The Eagle. It featured eight tracks penned by Robbie. He played 6 and 12-string guitar and sang led vocals. Ramnad Raghavan was a guest artist. He played the mrdangam drums, which are an Indian log drum. Producing The Voice Of The Eagle, was Jack Mothrop. Robbie dedicated The Voice Of The Eagle to the Indian  American and Avatar Meher Baba an Indian spiritual master, who many people believed, was God in human form. The Voice Of The Eagle was released in 1972.

The Voice Of The Eagle found Robbie immersing himself in Native American culture. It was a truly ambitious album. However, it was totally different to other albums released during 1972. David Bowie released, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, Can Ege Bamyasi, Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill, Nick Drake Pink Moon, Neu Neu and Big Star Number One Records. Looking back, The Voice Of The Eagle was very different to the music released in 1972. Sadly, The Voice Of The Eagle was a commercial failure. It passed most people by. Maybe the problem was, people didn’t understand what was one of Robbie Basho’s most ambitious albums, which I’ll now tell you about.

Opening The Voice Of The Eagle is the title-track. It’s described as a Hopi Raga. Just a deliberately strummed guitar sets the scene for Robbie’s vocal. It’s heartfelt and sincere, as like the eagle, which is the messenger of the gods, soars and quivers above the arrangement.  Sometimes, it’s half-spoken, other times, akin to a Native American chant. A constant companion is Ramnad Raghavan’s mrdangam. It provides the heartbeats and adds to the drama. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the emotion and sincerity of Robbie’s vocal on this  Hopi Rag.

Wounded Knee Soliloquy has a much more tradition folk sound. This might have been a better track to open the album. Just an acoustic guitar accompanying Robbie’s vocal. It veers between tender to powerful, while melancholia and sadness are ever-present as Robbie tells the story of Big Foot. The lyrics are beautiful and have a cinematic quality. Pictures and scenarios unfold. They come to life thanks to Robbie’s heartfelt rendition of the lyrics.

Blue Corn Serenade is an eleven minute epic that’s Robbie referred to as an “American Indian manifesto.” This allows Robbie to experiment. It sees a continuation of the folk influence of the previous track. Robbie’s fingers flit up and down the fretboards Seamlessly and quickly, he changes chords. You realise just how talented a guitarist he is. After four minutes of mesmeric guitar playing, a heart-wrenching vocal enters. It’s Robbie’s finest vocal. Oozing emotion, he gives thanks for the harvest. We should give thanks for a vocal and guitar playing as good as this.

Melancholy described the acoustic guitar that opens Joseph. Robbie’s deep, powerful vocal soars above the arrangement, as he tells the story of Thunder Rolling who set out on a twelve hour, epic journey. Again, Robbie brings the lyrics to life. You can imagine the journey unfolding. Especially, Thunder Rolling leading his people “across the mountains by the end of the day.” Just like other tracks, the lyrics have a cinematic quality. Similarly, Robbie becomes a storyteller who has you spellbound.

Omaha Tribal Prayer is similar to a song the Boy Scouts sing as they close their camp fire. Robbie changed the words slightly. He uses the Sioux word for god Wakantha. This also helps with the rhythmic quality of the track. It’s a  return to the sound of the opening track, The Voice Of An Eagle. Ramnad Raghavan’s mrdangam accompanies Robbie’s needy vocal and acoustic guitar. His vocal is a cathartic outpouring of emotion. If you listen to the lyrics: “cross On Over, Cross On Over, The bridge twixt you and me, and a helping hand, will set you free” they could be construed as personal. Is this Robbie reaching out and trying to free the father he lost at an early age? If it is, this makes this track all the more powerful.

Bright stabs of guitar open Sweet Medicine, a wistful instrumental. Robbie’s chiming guitar is accompanied by him whistling. It quivers above his guitar. Thankfully, it doesn’t detract from his guitar playing, which is some of his finest. He mixes drama, beauty and melancholia over five minutes.

Roses And Gold is a heartfelt and beautiful love song. It shows another side of Robbie Basho. With just a tender, acoustic guitar for company Robbie’s vocal is impassioned and sincere. This is apparent when he sings “she ls my love, she ls my life.” Having shown another side to his music, one wonders how much commercial success and critical acclaim Robbie would’ve enjoyed if he’d made a career out of more traditional songs like this?

Moving Up A Ways, a drama myth, closes The Voice Of The Eagle. The song depicts the “spiritual and physical evolution from lover to higher forms of life.” After a lengthy introduction where Robbie lays down some of his finest guitar licks, his vocal enters. It’s a mixture of drama, emotion and sincerity as the lyrics take on new meaning and life. 

The Voice Of An Eagle found Robbie Basho at the height of his interest in the Native American. The album is akin to Robbie paying homage to their memory. Hence this fusion of celebratory songs, chants and love songs. It was an ambitious, bold and groundbreaking project. That’s the case from the get-go. The title-track, which is a Hopi Raga, has a real left-field sound. It’s a challenging and innovative track. This shows that Robbie was determined to push music boundaries. However, it could be argued that  it wasn’t the best track to open The Voice Of An Eagle  which was recently rereleased on Vanguard Masters, a subsidiary of Ace Records. 

Research has shown that potential record buyers only spend fifteen seconds decided whether to purchase an album. Often, they don’t get any further than the first track. That’s why it’s vital that the first track grabs the listener’s attention. So, possibly, if Wounded Knee Soliloquy had opened The Voice Of An Eagle maybe it would’ve made a bigger impression on record buyers. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

The Voice Of An Eagle either passed many people by or they didn’t understand it. Then there was the fact that music had moved on. Folk was no longer as popular. Rock was King. Whether it was Krautrock, prog rock or classic rock, rock ruled the roost. Granted soul was making inroads, but only briefly. Maybe, The Voice Of An Eagle is an album that was a couple of years too late.

Indeed, The Voice Of An Eagle has a late sixties sound to it. Back in the late-sixties, people seemed more amenable to new genres of music. It was a time when anything went. That would’ve been the time to release The Voice Of An Eagle. Sadly, The Voice Of An Eagle was released in 1972 and sank without trace. That’s a great shame, because Robbie Basho was determined to create ambitious and groundbreaking music. Ironically, given his talent as a musician, singer and songwriter, Robbie could’ve enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim.

That would’ve meant compromising what he believed in. Robbie wasn’t willing to go down the road of James Taylor and Jackson Browne. No. He was determined to release music he believed in. You can’t help but admire Robbie for sticking to his principles. That was the case throughout his twenty-year recording career. Sadly, commercial success and critical acclaim eluded Robbie Basho, who was more than a singer, songwriter and musician.

Robbie was a poet and father of American Raga. He was an innovator whose life was a spiritual quest. Life was a constant search for meaning for Robbie Basho. However, Robbie’s career was cut tragically short aged forty-six. Robbie Basho’s legacy was a string of innovative and ambitious albums, including the underrated The Voice Of An Eagle.


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